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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 9, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Old Food, New Music, and Mouse Meat

Usually when something is truly awful, I don't waste your time or mine reviewing it.

The only exceptions are:

1. When it's something so hyped that you might get tricked into seeing it, and I feel I have a duty to warn you.

2. When it's so very, very bad that it's entertaining in its badness.

It is the second principle, not the first, that leads me to review The Food of a Younger Land by Mark Kurlansky.

The idea is actually a pretty cool one -- which is why I bought the book.

It seems that during the Great Depression, part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's "stimulus package" was to pay money to out-of-work writers so they wouldn't have to (God forbid) work at an honest job.

Speaking as a writer, I find it vaguely appalling that young, unpublished writers should have been put so directly on the public dole. If there were some established writers whose income suddenly dried up, I could see giving them a government sinecure, but the new writers hadn't actually proven that they were writers.

It's as if there were suddenly a charity for out-of-work doctors, and so I decided to declare myself a doctor so I'd qualify. Hey, I might not know much about doctoring, but I'm willing to give it a try as long as they're paying me for it!

Kurlansky obviously has a different opinion -- he is almost worshipful about this brilliant, wonderful project to employ writers.

And, to be fair, they were required to produce actual writing in order to qualify for their government handout.

(If only my grandmother, who scrubbed floors to earn money for food during the Depression, had thought to declare herself a writer! She had actually published some poetry, too, so she was already in the top echelon of writers, having seen her name in print.)

But let's set that issue aside and get to what makes The Food of a Younger Land seem cool. After the writers wrote a few regional guidebooks, they looked around for something useful to do and hit upon the idea of recording the eating customs, favorite dishes, and ordinary food of every region of the country.

The project was well under way when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and suddenly the government was much more interested in paying the writers to create pro-war propaganda.

(Imagine if George W. Bush had proposed using public money to hire out-of-work writers to propagandize in favor of the Iraq War! But I digress.)

The food project petered out. Much of the material that had already been written disappeared. Some of it had never been written at all, since writers are by nature lazy; the war was a godsend to the lazy ones who actually wrote nothing, since nobody ever checked up on them to see what they had done for their money.

But a two-foot stack of essays and articles survived, and that's what Kurlansky found in the National Archives and has turned into a book.

At the time, there was no particular thought of preserving part of the culture -- why should they suppose that twenty years later, McDonald's, better freezers, and the global economy would transform the way America ate?

Quite accidentally, these essays became a record of an older time, before fast food, before frozen food, before organic farming, before produce could be shipped in from Chile or New Zealand out of season.

Kurlansky's viewpoint is, of course, the rigid conservatism of our liberal elite: If it's new, and ordinary people like it, it sucks. So he deplores all the changes.

Me, I think the changes are great. When I was a kid, there was one kind of lettuce in California grocery stores: iceberg. It was just called "lettuce." I thought "iceberg" was just fancy menu talk.

It wasn't until I was in graduate school -- really -- that I finally discovered that there were leafy lettuces with actual flavors, which didn't cause flatulence and weren't so round you could bowl with them.

The spread of fast food meant that as more and more women left the home to enter the job market, they could choose from a wide variety of cheap, fast restaurants instead of having to come home and cook every single day.

(But sneering at what the middle class and lower class do is what liberal intellectuals thrive on. Then they vote for Democrats and pretend they love the "common man." They just despise everything the common man buys and eats and wears and reads and listens to on the radio.

(And don't deny it -- I've been to your little soirees where you sip your wine and cheese and smoke your weed and mock the hideous monstrous people who shop at WalMart and eat at McDonald's. If you push me, I'll name names.)

Still, as a novelist I love to get my hands on books that tell me what people in other eras ate -- and wore, and slept in, and sang, and read. So much of this gets lost, and quite accidentally this federal writers project became a kind of time capsule.

Or so the reviews of The Food of a Younger Land promised.

So I open the book and start to read the introduction. On page four, I find the following sentence:

"From 1940 to 1950 the population of the United States increased from 20 million to 151 million, and Americans became far more affluent."

I don't know about you, but that's got to be the biggest baby boom in all of history. I mean, every single person, not just the adult women, must have given birth at least seven times (on average) to boost the population so much, so quickly.

OK, thought I, it's just a ridiculous typo. The book simply had no decent editor, and the author didn't bother to read the galley proofs when they came in. A simple, lazy mistake.

But in the very next paragraph, I find out this "fact":

"In 1940 there were 264 divorces for every thousand people. By 1950 the divorce rate had risen to 385 per thousand."

Wow. Given that half those thousand people were male, and half female, and a good number of them must have been children, it seems to me that people were getting divorced before they even had time to get married.

I bet that it wasn't supposed to be "for every thousand people," but rather for every thousand marriages. And even then, the number sounds suspiciously high.

So Kurlansky's not a mathematician, and neither is his editor. But by this point, I'm beginning to see a pattern. It looks to me as if Kurlansky is going to say a lot of things that he hasn't even thought about. He's going to leap to conclusions without actually understanding what his sources say.

In other words, he can't be trusted. The only thing you can be sure of is that he will, at every point, adopt the standard knee-jerk group-think attitude of the intellectual elite.

Because on page 5, when talking about how New England fisheries were booming back then, and "flying squirrels still leapt from conifer to hardwood in the uncut forests of Appalachia," all he can say about it is: "All of this has changed. It is terrifying to see how much we have lost in only seventy years."

Excuse me, but did he miss the fact that vast stretches of the American Northeast and Southeast have been vastly re-forested in that time? Has he visited Appalachia and done a flying-squirrel count? Last time I check, there were a lot of trees everywhere. Around here anywhere that people don't mow, trees grow. But if you're an intellectual in America, you don't actually have to know what you're talking about to find something "terrifying."

He neglects to point out that among the "terrifying" changes in those years from 1940 to the present, good refrigeration and effective freezers have become almost universal in America, so that foods that were once completely out of reach can now be purchased by everyone and consumed at leisure.

Women who once had to spend all day cooking in order to have any kind of meal at all on the table can now get home from their nice careers and pop something from the freezer into the microwave and have dinner in an incredibly short amount of time.

You can bet that Kurlansky wouldn't want to have to haul water every day just to have something to drink or wash with -- but for a lot of Americans in 1940, indoor plumbing and electricity were still in that "terrifying" future.

In our "terrifying" present day, I can buy honking big Mexican papayas all year in my grocery store, and in specialty stores I can satisfy my most arcane cravings. I can get orange juice that isn't made from concentrate, sticky sushi rice instead of having to make do with the polished kind, and Australian yogurt that's exactly the way I like it. What a nightmare.

Yes, we lost some of our regional dishes. But do you know why we lost them?

It wasn't because somebody came around with a stick and beat anyone who cooked those dishes senseless. It's because people got a chance to eat other food -- food that was cheaper, or took less time, or offered more variety, or food they simply liked better. Was some of that new food crappy? Oh yes. But so was a lot of the old food.

So within the first five pages, Kurlansky had shown himself to be an elitist twit and an incompetent scholar. The rest of the introduction was devoted to his twitterpated worship of the writers of the federal writers project. And then we finally come to the essays on food in the 1930s.

And, with only a few exceptions, they're rubbish.

Because too many of these writers were just like Kurlansky -- elitist twits, looking down on the people whose eating habits they were recording. Their writing is mostly about what clever writers they are.

I'm not going to throw the book away, because buried in it there really are useful bits of information and interesting recipes. But the idiot quotient of the book is so high that I can't recommend it to anyone except as a textbook on what happens to writers who take themselves way, way too seriously without actually doing the work to earn their impressive levels of self-esteem.

Kurlansky has written some other books, notably Cod and Salt. As I recall, I started reading Salt once and never got back to it. In retrospect, I should have realized that this was my inner critic pronouncing judgment on Kurlansky.

What can I say? WalMart doesn't often sell Kurlansky's books. That sure tells you something. WalMart also doesn't sell mine. So whatever boat Kurlansky is in, I'm apparently in it, too. But I sure hope he stays at his end of the deck, so I can keep breathing fresh air.

*

Steve Martin recently did a round of appearances touting his new record, The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo.

The cool thing is, it's actually an album of new songs for the five-string banjo.

But customers will be disappointed if they think it's a new Steve Martin comedy album, like his smash hit A Wild and Crazy Guy, which included the song "King Tut."

Yes, Steve Martin does sing a comic song on the album ("Late for School"), but it's a bit of gentle nonsense, more Allan Sherman than Wild and Crazy Guy.

Mostly, this is just an album of good banjo music.

Do you know how many albums of good banjo music there have been in history?

I mean -- good banjo music for people who don't think they love banjo music. I'm sure the dedicated banjo lovers have thousands of albums.

But for the past thirty years or so, there's been only one banjo album of such surpassing brilliance that I can listen to it over and over, and that's the soundtrack album from the movie Deliverance.

Well, now there's a second album. Maybe not brilliant, but pretty darn good.

Oh, and it isn't just banjo music, either. There are vocal tracks from people you've heard of, like Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, and Mary Black.

So The Crow is exactly the album that I thought it would be, and I'm happy. But if somebody thought it was a comedy album, maybe they're not so happy. Can't help it -- you should have waited for my review.

*

A good friend just sent me, as a gift, a recording of the Morten Lauridsen Lux Aeterna.

I had never heard this album before, and from my friend's description, I rather expected it to be a devastatingly beautiful piece of music, somewhere between Pachelbel's Canon in D and Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. Those were both pieces of music that hit me with such impact that I remember exactly who first played them for me and where we were when they did. (In both cases, it was my cousin Mark Park, who is still my musical shepherd.)

Lauridsen's Lux aeterna does not have that powerful through line that sucks you in and forces you to listen. But, as my friend promised, there is a transcendent beauty in it that, when I turned the volume up (so I didn't miss any of the quiet passages) surrounded me with a beauty that, rather than trying to control me, let me browse through it, peering where I wanted.

The choral passages rarely attempt anything Messiah-like; nor is any part of this about displaying virtuosity. Instead, there's almost a New-Age or Ambient air of unobtrusiveness.

And it dawned on me almost at once that this was exactly perfect for a piece of devotional music. This is music that invites you to meditate and pray, rather than admire and applaud. This is music you can be lost in; and then, after listening for a while, it is music that makes you feel found.

The rest of the album provides other Lauridsen selections, which I also very much enjoyed. What astonished me was that Lauridsen, whom I had never heard of, was born in 1943. He's only nine years older than I am.

This means that he went through the same miserable academic training that almost all serious composers today had to get through -- a gauntlet of forced atonality and anti-melodic "music" that you had better learn to appreciate and create or you ain't gettin' a degree in composition from this university, buster.

Lauridsen came out of that system and was still able to write music that is subtle, beautiful, melodic, emotional, worshipful. What a great gift to receive; what a good friend to trust me to appreciate it.

*

I recently picked up an album of piano music, No Boundaries, from The 5 Browns. These are five brothers and sisters, Deondra, Desirae, Gregory, Melody, and Ryan, who are all virtuoso pianists, and their album consists of solos, duets, and even a couple of pieces where all five play at once (presumably on separate pianos).

They really are virtuosos, though now and then I heard a missed note (and yes, I'm musician enough to know it was a missed note, folks).

But the real frustration for me is that some of the songs -- by no means all -- are brutalized in their quest to show off their virtuosity. Most notably, Rhapsody in Blue (Gershwin) and Simple Gifts (Copland) are played at such a rapid tempo as to shatter the musicality of the pieces.

I'm glad the Browns are so talented that they can play these pieces way faster than anybody else ever wanted to. But somewhere along the line, wouldn't it be nice if they remembered that the composer is creating something for the audience, and the performer is supposed to be his collaborator in that process.

Imagine going to a performance of a great play, only the actors are so determined to show off their brilliant diction that they act the play in triple time. They're proud of the fact that they nevertheless pronounce every single syllable (well, all but a couple), and never mind if it's almost impossible to follow the play's storyline, because the whole point is that you have never heard this play acted so fast.

But then there were some very good tracks that showed some respect for and comprehension of music, and that gave me hope.

And then there were the Ferrante & Teicher-style "adaptations," which are all right in their place, but ...

Let's just say that talent and skill only get you so far. You've also got to have sense and judgment and a willingness to yield to the composer in creating the music he first wrote down.

I know, it sounds like I hated their playing. And ... on a few tracks ... I did. But I was sometimes as impressed as they wanted their audience to be. So I've ordered a few more of their albums, in the hope that this one was just an aberration, and the Liberace tendencies will disappear as I listen to later and better work. I'll let you know how that works out.

*

When All Hell Breaks Loose is a guide to surviving in suburban or urban America when there's a disaster of such a magnitude that civilization breaks down.

And lest you think that such things aren't likely to happen, please remember that they do happen and recently have happened -- triggered by riots or hurricanes or acts of terrorism or tornadoes. When things like that happen, some people are at their worst but others are at their best.

Author Cody Lundin has actually tried out an amazing number of things -- testing different kinds of shelter if the weather is really cold or hot; eating the kind of food that is likely to pop up naturally if there's nothing at the grocery store; purifying water from sources in your neighborhood other than the municipal tap.

So the book is full of smart advice and warnings and some appalling suggestions that I hope I'm never, never desperate enough to try.

Like his instructions for cooking and eating mice.

Yep, one of his ideas for a survival kit is to have a lot of mousetraps. In case you didn't notice, mouse are really teeny, and if you think you can skin them and clean them like, say, rabbits, think again. They're both from the rodent family, but the scale is so small that you have no hope of doing the job when the meat is still raw.

So ... you roast the little suckers whole. Then you rub off the singed fur, or if you really must, you can peel away the skin from a roasted mouse much more easily than from a raw one.

And as long as you cook them enough (but don't burn them), it's OK if you only check the traps morning and evening -- even if a mouse has been lying there dead all day, the meat is still safe enough to eat.

It's three bites, really. Just the crunchy head and two bites for the body. But make sure you eat the brains hot, he advises. They're really nasty when they get cold.

Yeah, right. I wonder how many weeks I'd have to be without food before I'd ever find out whether he's right about the mice.

He does point out that rats are bigger and easier to clean and cook.

As for me, I think I'll let a cat eat the mice, and then I'll eat the cat.

Seriously, I think this is a terrific book to have. His advice is almost always practical, and I'm going to assemble the stuff he says people ought to have on hand. The bleach for purifying water. The heavy-duty plastic barrel-liner bags that can be made into tents or used to dispose of latrine waste without letting it get into the aquifer. And ... yes ... the mousetraps.


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